Categories
Creativity

Will ‘design thinking’ save classical music?

I recently happened on an online webinar series hosted by the Young Classical Artists Trust (YCAT), entitled ‘Introduction to Design Thinking for Musicians‘. Now, this is sort of thing is perfect clickbait for me. ‘Design Thinking’ sounds like a cool piece of Silicon Valley tech-speak – and we can use it as musicians? Sign me up!

Like most of these cool-sounding strategies, though, there’s some pretty nebulous stuff hiding under the hood, which we’ll have to unpack before we get to whether this is actually going to revolutionise the concert experience as we know it.

What is ‘design thinking’?

Design Thinking has a few definitions, but from what I can see it’s mostly about developing products by reverse engineering the problem a consumer has, and solving it. But hang on – why use normal words when we could do this?:

Design Thinking is an iterative process in which we seek to understand the user, challenge assumptions, and redefine problems in an attempt to identify alternative strategies and solutions that might not be instantly apparent with our initial level of understanding. At the same time, Design Thinking provides a solution-based approach to solving problems.

A ‘solution-based approach to solving problems’ sounds a little like the winner of an early 00’s Tautology of the Year competition. The more useful part of that paragraph is to do with the word ‘iterative’. You try something out, make small adjustments in response to feedback, and put out a new version, with a tight loop that should quickly generate improvements to the product.

Apple is a classic example of a company that’s renowned for this way of designing. They think their way into the consumer’s head, and solve their problem before they know they have one. The process is supposed to force you out of ingrained patterns of thought about how to frame problems and provide solutions.

There’s one more concept we need to introduce here, before we dig into the applications of this strategy to music, and that’s User Experience, or UX – the way the customer actually interacts with your product. In most use-cases, you want this to be fuss-free, accessible, and efficient. As an early social-media engineer now puts it, ‘The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.’ UX design helps funnel people towards where you want them to be, or what you want them to do (or click).

Can we leverage this to improve the experience of music to audiences?

Come on, less talk, more saving classical music

OK, we’re getting there. A couple of people have begun to make the leap from UX to AX: ‘Audience Experience’. Essentially, centre the experience of the audience and design a concert around their needs. Zachary Manzi, an orchestral performer himself, has written on this extensively for Medium. The pitch is a good one:

…the traditional concert experience is just one kind of experience. We can design new ones to elevate music in ways that speak to new people.

So far so good, and even if you feel the ‘traditional concert experience’ gets a lot of unfair flak these days, it’s no great leap to suggest it doesn’t appeal to everybody. Manzi’s solution is to apply design thinking to the concert experience:

What does this really look like in music? If we are a piano trio and creating an experience for 20-somethings poets, then we must understand who these people are, what they enjoy, what they hate, what they do on the weekends, where they like to hang out, how they talk, and what else they would be doing if they weren’t at a concert. Then we build a tailored experience that invites them to pave a path through the music in a way that is intrinsically valuable to them.

Let’s set aside for now the issue of whether creating a better Audience Experience necessarily results in creating better art – there isn’t space here for me to take on Milton Babbitt, even were I the right person to do so. For now, we can choose to evaluate this through a lens of ‘getting bums on seats’ rather than ‘creating great art’.

I like the idea of an experience tailored to a particular group who you’ve designated as ‘your audience’ for the purpose of a particular project or concert. There’s a little problem of scale if you choose the wrong niche, though, specifically whether there are enough 20-something poets to fill the space and make the event commercially viable.

Manzi’s description of an event created along these lines takes a solid premise: people aren’t always feeling what we’re feeling when we’re listening to music, so let’s create a programme where musicians explain what particular pieces mean to them:

Musicians of the orchestra…introduce pieces they have picked for the program, talking about how it has inspired and changed them as people. Audience members share their reactions to the music in real time–responding to questions in their interactive program books and participating in creative capacities like drawing sounds or creating origami. Everybody has options: participate, engage, ponder…or just enjoy the music.

Whether you read that with approval or horror probably says something deep and meaningful about your cultural background. Regardless, it’s an inventive solution to the problem, though you would have to have an audience willing to play along – and presumably listen to a fair amount more talking than a traditional concert.

Audience Experience

The ‘creating an experience’ mentality has had benefits in related fields. Secret Cinema (recently, and not un-controversially, awarded a grant from the very fund I was writing about a few weeks ago) has made the cinema-going experience into a thorough-going event that has proven very popular, and (until this year at least), lucrative.

I imagine it helps that cinema at its most mainstream has an incredibly wide base of appeal. I’m not sure everyone would be as enthusiastic as me about a Handel soiree experience in which the audience is greeted by bewigged attendants and interacts with actors playing, I don’t know, Hanoverian royalty, while swanning around an 18th-century ballroom.

Critics of Design Thinking warn that non-STEM disciplines are being forced into models that simply don’t apply to them. It’s safe to say Lee Vinsel isn’t a fan, here quoting an architectural professor:

“It’s design as marketing,” he said. “It’s about looking for and exploiting a market niche. It’s not really about a new and better world. It’s about exquisitely calibrating a product to a market niche that is underexploited.”

That said, in the current climate, classical music would probably settle for exploiting some market niches.

Give the people what they want?

A broader concern is – to risk another nebulous concept at this late stage – to do with authenticity. Artists are generally encouraged to communicate something personal through their art, rather than simply something that will appeal to the consumer. If we concentrate on chasing the audience experience and designing our offering around them, how much are we communicating of ourselves, and how much do we simply end up chasing trends?

‘Give the people what they want’ might work for mass media (and James Bond), but part of the problem in generating new audiences for declining art forms is that the people don’t always know what they want. We should absolutely be applauding any effort to present music in original and effective ways – and looking to the tech world for solutions is fine, if we remember that what works in one field doesn’t always transfer neatly over to another. There’s a balance to be struck between creating a more appealing product and making better art. Right now we’d probably settle for a little security, and if ‘design thinking’ is a tool to help us get there, maybe I can let go of a little cynicism.

Categories
Music

Why I don’t like listening to music (sometimes)

I sometimes beat myself up a little for not listening to as much music as I should. After all, it’s my livelihood, and my vocation – surely I should be spending a considerable portion of my time listening to it. And yet, I will often just…choose not to. I think at least part of the reason is due to a damaging cycle: I have convinced myself that I ought to listen to music in a certain way, a way which causes me not to enjoy it all that much, which in turn means I seek it out less often.

To test this hypothesis, I’m thinking about the situations in which I encounter music. Let’s take a typical scenario. I’m at home, and it occurs to me that I might enjoy listening to some music. I’ll open Spotify on my laptop, and search for anything that springs to mind, or try and find something new. What happens next is generally one of two things: a) I will sit down and try and concentrate on the music; or b) I will try and do something else, with the music in the background.

In situation a), I’m likely to get a bit fidgety, or feel like I ought to be doing something with my unoccupied hands, or with the bit of my brain which is disengaged. In b), there’s a danger I’ll get absorbed in the other activity, and tune out of the music entirely, forgetting to actually listen. It becomes like trying to read a book in bed before going to sleep; the mind wanders, and before long, the eyes have travelled down half the page of their own accord without taking anything in.

Both of these situations are a little unsatisfying, and because of this, I’m often more likely to put on a spoken-word podcast, and get on with another task. This works better, because I’m getting something done, and at the same time I’m generally able to process the audio content. It makes me feel productive, and like I’m learning something, so it feels like an efficient use of my time.

But I don’t necessarily want the experience of music to feel like this – after all, efficiency really isn’t the point.

Accordingly, I’m trying to think of the times when I really enjoy listening to music, to see if I can extrapolate something out of those experiences which will help me work out where I’m going wrong.


The weather had just turned. A greying summer had finally given in to autumn, a triumph the latter celebrated with lashings of rain and evening gloom. It was dark both inside and out, and as I sat working on the sofa, the rain was falling hard at the window, illuminated by the nearby yellow glow of the street-lamp.

These conditions on their own were auspicious enough: who doesn’t like the feeling of being warm inside, while behind a pane of glass the elements rage? But I realised I could enhance this experience, and I knew exactly how. I opened Spotify and cued up the most recent album by the band Bohren & der Club of Gore.

digression A brief digression may be necessary here, to cover the artistry of Bohren. The German musicians have become, over the course of several decades, perhaps the world’s leading exponents of a genre variously known as doom jazz, detective jazz, slow-core, or cinematic noir. The band’s members started off in various death-metal outfits, including the charmingly-named Chronical Diarrhoea, before finding their chosen mode of expression insufficiently depressing. This prompted a progression to what can best be described as very slow minor-key jazz, which they determined to be the proper means to express alienation and despair.

It’s fair to say they’ve mellowed a little over the years, with 2014’s Piano Nights permitting at least some major chords, and this year’s Patchouli Blue poking its nose slightly further out of the abyss. Its palette combines the standard Bohren ingredients – brushed snare, rasping saxophone, a leaden double bass hauling itself effortfully into the next bar – with something approaching sunlight, albeit synthetic, but bordering on hopeful. digression ends

As the rain formed a sort of white-noise background static, the murky soundworld of the music fused with it, and the whole experience, together with the darkness, caused a physical shiver of delight down my spine that must have lasted ten seconds.

This, I think, is what is now known as ASMR, although that sciencey-sounding name belies a sensation that is still not well understood. It’s the sort of thing you might experience stepping into a warm shower after coming in from a muddy walk, or from someone gently playing with your hair.

I continued listening, fairly actively though entranced, for about half an hour or so, until it was time to get dinner ready. It was certainly one of the most enjoyable musical experiences I’ve had in recent weeks. But why?


The music had soundtracked, in an almost cinematic way, my surroundings: the weather, the dark, probably even my emotions – which, although I haven’t mentioned them yet, were doubtless another important contributing factor, coming at the end of day when I had been more than usually weighed-down by the frustrated ambitions of the year to date.

The key was that the music complemented everything else. I think one of the reasons I don’t always enjoy listening to music is that I expect it to stand on its own, in a vacuum, and for that to be sufficient to move me or even simply hold my interest. But music, as we all know, doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and it interacts with everything else that’s going on in the world, and the state of our minds.

I generally know enough to know that I have to be in the right mood to listen to a certain piece – but I tend to forget about everything else, the atmospheric conditions, the quality of the environment through which those sound-waves are going to end up vibrating.

As I write, I’ve tested this hypothesis a little. The environmental conditions are different: it’s the afternoon; it’s grey, but not dark, and my mood likewise. I’m playing the same album, but I’ve tried to recreate the circumstances a little by cuing up some artificial rain, via the website rainymood.com. The resulting attempt is less powerful, but it’s still raising a little shiver.

(Interestingly, I seem not to be the only one who has discovered this combination. Does it go back to some culturally-ingrained knowledge of film noir, or perhaps a half-remembered detective novel? Or is tapping into some kind of shared urban alienation? Note to self: more research needed.)


Perhaps, then, it’s not the music that I’ve been getting wrong, but everything else, the environmental factors. Bohren needs a rainy, urban cityscape, darkness, a glass of whisky, perhaps a revolver in the top drawer, so that you can listen to it while you stare warily out into the street under the sodden brim of your hat.

What about the rest – what do other genres need to engage me to the same extent? Maybe renaissance polyphony needs the gentle clink of a thurible, the smell of incense, that cool, airy feeling from being inside a massive stone building. Maybe desert rock like The Killers needs the sensation of being behind the wheel of a car, speeding anonymously through the moonlit Nevada sandscape. Maybe.

Could there be a set of circumstances specific to every piece of music in the world, that allows it to speak its truest? It’s like being on holiday and enjoying an aniseedy liquor, and bringing one back from the airport, and then finding on returning home that it doesn’t taste the same. It needed that chemical reaction with the humid air, and that state of holiday excitement and relaxation, to properly register.

All of which is a way of saying, perhaps I can let myself off the hook a little when I don’t enjoy music. Sometimes, the context is wrong. I’m not always good at remembering that, and I’m not always good at realising what those other factors are that will allow music to do what it does best. Music doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The thing to practice is finding the right music for the right environment – or the other way around.

Categories
Creativity Technology

A new creative arms race?

Cultural commentators seem largely to fall into one of two camps at the moment. The first camp sees an opportunity to ‘build back better’. From the desolate rubble of 2020’s creative landscape, a new, fairer, more diverse, less stuffy artistic realm can be built, they say. We should frame our current situation as an opportunity, an environmental course correction with long-lasting benefits to be had, if we can just seize them.

The second camp is less optimistic, and rather more focussed on preserving the viability of creative institutions and the livelihoods of those who contribute to them. After all, what good is a fairer and more accessible world of the arts if there are no artists left to fashion it?

‘Normality is futility’

This week, the Guardian published an editorial outlining its view on the way forward for classical music. Their conclusion places them among the optimists:

It may mean reversing every assumption they know, it may mean that orchestras become communities of musicians who operate in small groups, as opposed to the massed ranks that they were employed to be – but the path of becoming radically local, community-centred organisations, who perform in places other than grand concert halls lies open. So does the acceleration of connecting with audiences digitally.

It makes it sound so easy – notwithstanding the fact that many organisations have been pouring their energy into these avenues since well before the pandemic. (The CBSO has arguably been doing this for decades.) Having decried Boris Johnson’s ’empty optimism and intelligence-insulting boosterism’ earlier in the article, the authors have then made some suggestions which are significantly easier to write about than they are to put into practice: be radically local, while at the same time connecting to a monied digital audience.

The way to connect with audiences digitally may remain ‘open’, but it’s not as if orchestras and ensembles haven’t been aggressively pursuing this direction for a while now. The current problem doesn’t seem to be that there isn’t enough digital content – it’s that by and large people won’t pay for it, and that other ways to monetise are hard to come by.

Arts entrepreneur David Taylor’s provocatively titled blog ‘Of course orchestras can make money online‘ offers a dissenting view – monetisation comes at the end of a sometimes-lengthy process of audience-generation via an organisation or brand providing ‘value’ to its audience, free of charge:

1 – Generate attention with content that provides value to an audience

2 – Use that attention and value to build strong connections and meaningful relationships

3 – Monetise those strong connections and meaningful relationships through multiple income streams and advocacy that also provide value.

This approach works well in many of the fields Taylor cites, including YouTubers and online lifestyle gurus. But for an orchestra, putting so much online for free in order to provide ‘value’ might prove an insurmountable loss-leader.

A creative arms-race

It’s a compelling vision of the future, especially if, like me, you avidly consume the value offered up for free by certain online lifestyle gurus. But one wonders: if there is a creative arms-race into this techno-utopian future, there will be a great number of organisations that simply can’t keep up.

Of course, seeing organisations doing something new, creative, different, and perhaps lucrative, will inspire others to have a go themselves. But the adjustment to a new funding model will leave many behind, whether because their brand simply isn’t suited to the fast-moving world of online media, or because they can’t afford the expertise of a social media brand manager on top of the salaries of a few dozen hungry musicians.

It’s notable that one of the most-watched classical music live-streams of recent weeks was that given by ORA Singers from the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern, which has now racked up a very solid 15000 views on YouTube. Significantly, it was free to watch, though it must have cost a fair amount to lay on. It was also very good, especially considering the requirements of distancing forty singers in the space.

This is a brilliant way to offer value for free and help build up an audience, and ORA will undoubtedly have reached beyond their regular live concert audience. But I wonder how many other ensembles are able to pay a small army of freelancers to put on a loss-making event such as this, in the same of brand-building.

The outgoing president of the American Choral Directors’ Association, Tim Sharp, opened a recent letter to his community with a quote from the hymnodist Robert Lowry:

My life flows on in endless song; Above Earth’s lamentation,
I catch the sweet ‘tho far-off hymn, That hails A NEW CREATION;
Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—How can I keep from singing?

Sharp sees an opportunity to realise this ‘new creation’ by using the digital gains made during the pandemic to pursue wider teaching and engagement goals. I would love to be as optimistic as he is, and dearly hope he’s right, even though for me it remains something of a ‘far-off hymn’.

Ultimately, the conclusion I’m dancing around putting my name to is this: a transition to a more online economic basis for creative organisations is probable, at least in the short term, and not altogether undesirable. The speed of that transition is going to be the tricky thing. It will need to be cushioned by support for organisations attempting to make it. Perhaps more importantly, it’s the people they employ that need support during this time, to avoid being driven out of the industry altogether.

Categories
Creativity

Consumption anxiety

Every now and then, I have a worrying thought, and it takes this form: is there a serious imbalance between the amount I’m creating, and the amount I’m consuming? To put it another way, I’m worrying about the ratio of things that I contribute to the world to things that I take from it. I don’t mean this in an environmental way – although I’m sure that’s true as well – but in a cultural sense.

It’s certainly a worry that’s been exacerbated by being unable to contribute to creative life in the way I normally would this year, what with global pandemia. But it’s not a new feeling, nor is it confined to this year. It’s an anxiety that appears to affect a large number of people. At a time when ‘content’ is available at our fingertips, more content than we could consume in a hundred lifetimes, many of us feel worried, even guilty, about consuming so much more than we produce.

It’s so easy to watch my friends making music online, or to binge a TV show, or waste time down in the depths of YouTube rabbit-holes. People have produced so much, and they share so much of it, and it’s just so very easy to gobble it all up. I’m attacked by the sense that I reap but I do not sow.

It’s not just me – this anxiety seems to be everywhere on the internet. Newer generations of internet users are well aware of just how much they consume; a quick google reveals that this has in turn provided the platform for dozens of articles about how to ‘release our creativity’ and counter the problem. It’s linked to an increased awareness of and contempt for the idea of consumerism. The revolt against this has led to movements such as ‘digital minimalism‘, which seems to be a reaction against the ease with which it is now possible to consume media of all kinds.

(The huge popularity of people peddling their own versions of this new ‘minimalism’ on YouTube is an interesting outgrowth of the idea. It can be easy to forget that they too are selling a lifestyle, albeit one with Apple-branded clean lines and the endless and subtly consumerist permutations of the quest for the ‘perfect productivity desk setup’.)

Where does this anxiety come from?

The disjunct between just how easily we can devour the fruits of culture, and how much we ourselves contribute to it, can seem vast. Most of us want to feel that we’re in control of our lives, and yet so many of us are reliant for our entertainment or consolation on the product of other people’s hard work and initiative – which makes us feel like maybe we aren’t in control after all.

I’ve been wondering if this is something which is particularly pertinent for those who practice music in the classical tradition. Most people would probably think of us broadly as ‘creatives’, but do we really create? I sometimes feel that at most we ‘curate’ – we take other people’s work (most often composers) and re-interpret their notes or rehearse their ideas. Thinking this way can leave me feeling like a net drain on the world’s creative output.

Is ‘creation vs consumption’ a false framing?

I wonder if it might be a bit simplistic to equate ‘creation’ with agency and ‘consumption’ with complacency. Certainly, for musicians, we can choose to frame interpretation and facilitation as a creative act in itself, one without which the composer’s notes and ideas cannot be realised.

A teacher once told me that to be a conductor is not to be an artist, or some kind of lofty spiritual being, but a craftsmen, working with their hands to fashion something, just as the musicians do. Seen this way, the performing musician is indeed a creative person. Performers are always creative when performing, as long as they are not doing so on auto-pilot or without intention.

Even beyond the realm of performance, the facilitation of a creative act is just as vital. Think of those who commission composers or arrange competitions, who stimulate or provide a conduit for the creativity of others. Teachers, artist managers, stage crew, tuners, luthiers, patrons. The whole ecosystem of the cultural world is so integrated that it doesn’t really make any sense to separate ‘creativity’ into something that some have or practice and others don’t.

Consumption is necessary for creativity

There’s a broader point to draw out here about how creativity works. Tiago Forte, in the Building a Second Brain Podcast, talks about the importance of the ‘gathering’ phase of creativity. This is when we intentionally gather material and allow ourselves to digest it. Only when we have consumed a lot of material and distilled it down to that which is most interesting or insightful do we then begin germinate ideas of our ‘own’.

Essentially, Forte is arguing that it’s not only OK to consume plenty of material, it’s a prerequisite to the creative act, a way of seeding the brain with the raw material which it can then play with or recombine in new ways.

Obviously, it’s going to make a bit of difference if we do this mindfully, being alert as we consume and positioning ourselves to be able to record things that resonate with us, in order to be able to recall and play with them. This idea is at the heart of Forte’s ‘Second Brain’ theory.


I’m enjoying processing this idea of how to think of creativity: as something not opposed to consumption, but the potential product of it. I’m hoping it will help me let myself off the hook – especially if I find that those tangible, recognisable fruits of creativity are thin on the ground in the wasteland of 2020.

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Choirs Conducting

Thematic concert programmes: worth the hassle?

Conductors…do not always know how to shape a meaningful whole out of smaller pieces…We often program according to some vague theme or chronological order, perhaps without real thought to or justification for our choices.

I feel, as they say, seen. The themed programme is a staple of choral concerts the world over, and yet it can often feel unsatisfying. So convinced are we of the need to theme an evening’s musical offering, to weave it tightly together to make a cogent whole, that we can often end up in an uncomfortable straitjacket. I find myself casting around for something that hasn’t already ‘been done’ in order to justify a selection of music. But is it really necessary, and can we avoid the hassle that the themed programme so often entails?

Why we use themes

The obsession with themes tends to manifest in classical choirs, and rather less so in orchestras. Partly that’s because orchestras deal on the whole in much larger chunks of music. The standard orchestral concert programme requires an overture, a concerto, and a symphony – three items, increasing in length, and usually filling up a couple of hours quite neatly. There’s often simply no need for any kind of external bracket to unify the music. Job done.

Choirs, on the other hand, have additional considerations, at least when performing on their own, or with a single accompanying instrument. The most obvious is the endurance level of the singers, reckoned generally to be lower than that of most orchestral instruments. The other is the available corpus of music, ranging from miniatures to epics, but often on the shorter side, especially where sacred music is concerned.

To compensate for the lumpy proportions of the music, choral programmes have embraced the extra-musical linking device of the theme. We want audiences to feel that what they’re hearing is a cogent hour or so’s music, and that it hangs together with some kind of consistency.

It comes from a hyper-awareness of an audience, wanting to provide them with a guide, a narrative thread, that will give them a route in to understanding and appreciating the music that the choir has prepared.

Advantages of the themed programme

A theme offers this curated experience, taking the listener lightly by the hand and leading them on a tour of whatever it is that’s being explored. A theme, whether loose or tightly-concentrated, provides a prism through which to view the music, a way to help understand and contextualise it.

Additionally, juxtaposition of items is a powerful tool to illuminate connections in all sorts of ways. Sometimes the most seemingly unlikely of segues can yield great insights into compositional process or musical sentiment. There was a recent, thrilling example of this in one of the BBC Proms’ eerily audience-less concerts this summer – Simon Rattle led the LSO straight from a Gabrieli canzona into Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, a striking and unpredictable segue which played up the dramatic contrasts of groups of instruments in both pieces.

Of course, juxtaposition of this sort need not be confined to the themed programme per se. But another reason we value a unifying extra-musical element is that it provides an entry point, especially to non-specialists or those less familiar with the genre of music on offer. Even the presence of just one or two words, nominally applying to all the pieces in a concert, allows someone with little experience of listening to a particular kind of music to find ways to apply these descriptors, and find a way in.

Problems with themes

However, it’s very easy to get bogged down in a theme, or for these themes to become tired and lazy through unthinking repetition. It has become a standing joke in choral circles (if not a particularly hilarious one) that a newly-formed chamber choir will specialise in early music, new music, and Parry’s Songs of Farewell.

When inspiration doesn’t strike, it can be all to easy to pick a well-worn trope and use it as the basis for a programme – or to try and squeeze pieces into a theme that don’t belong there. Audiences can be forgiving (especially if you do this with a wink!), but it’s awkward when a piece is shoehorned into a programme where it doesn’t belong. Constructing a programme within a restrictive theme can be like playing Tetris in four dimensions.

Equally, in the desire to present a theme which hasn’t been ‘done’, it can quickly get quite abstruse. I remember thinking myself very clever for a segment of a Christmas concert which I entitled ‘The Three Kings’ and populated with music by Caspar Othmayr, Melchior Hoffman, and Balthasar Resinarius. I might have been royally pleased with myself – but did it add anything apart from being a little glib?

I sometimes think the use of themes in this heavy-handed way betrays a rather patrician lack of trust in the audience. Do we really feel that audiences can’t handle a programme which is simply a selection of music we want to perform? The enthusiasm gained on our part is surely much more valuable to the success of the concert.

In these situations, why don’t we simply free ourselves from the strictures of the theme – let ourselves off the hook a little? After all, audiences are rarely thinking about the intricacies of a programme when listening to it as much as we are when assembling it. Better to embrace this sometimes and simply say: here is some music that we think represents us right now. We hope you enjoy it.

There’s a palpable sense of relief in casting aside that unworkable theme and replacing it with the answer to the question: what do the ensemble and I actually want to perform at the moment? The results of investigating that question could be of much more value than a too-clever theme.

Teach without being didactic

Ultimately, I like to leave an artistic event, be it a concert or a visit to a gallery, feeling cleverer – but not simply because I’ve been taught something, but because I’ve figured it out for myself. I think the most successful programmes are ones that gently lead an audience to work something out on its own – figure out a connection, understand a form.

That’s one of the reasons the much-maligned chronological programme remains useful. Art galleries still generally arrange works in chronological order from early to late, and that works for us – we notice the developments in style and form, even if we don’t have specialised training. The clever curator leaves clues so that we can teach ourselves what they want us to learn from the exhibition.

In live performance, we know that even the most carefully-designed programme only comes to life if it is presented engagingly. When I first started programming and conducting concerts, I was very determined that the music should speak for itself. I remained resolutely tight-lipped as my meticulously planned programme segued imperceptibly from one piece to another. I’m sure there are times when this approach can work, but now I think it can alienate as much as it can draw in, especially with a new listener. These days – depending on the programme and the place and all sorts of other factors – I’m generally much more comfortable interrupting the musical flow at intervals to speak to the audience and offer a few thoughts on what to listen for, or how.

Clearly, these extra-musical elements are important, especially to those new to the form. It’s interesting that some of the most successful and artistically interesting choral presentations to come out of the Year of Hell that is 2020 have involved a heavy dose of narrative, implied or actual: Marian Consort’s sequence of collaborative filmed projects, or Stile Antico’s recent Journey of the Mayflower.

The challenge, then, is to find extra-musical narratives, be they thematic or otherwise, which help us generate programmes that we are actually excited about performing, and that audiences will find energising and informative.

Categories
Creativity

Stop making the economic case for the arts

Arts funding is in the news again. The government’s announcement of a Culture Recovery Fund has prompted a round of online discussion of the place of the taxpayer in subsidising culture. It’s not hard to imagine that a feeding frenzy will soon be upon us, with arts organisations and venues gearing up to compete for a slice of the £1.57 billion available.

Why the ‘economic case’ is made

In the arts world, we often feel like we must fight to maintain the place of something we feel is essential in a world that doesn’t always seem to agree. In recent years, it’s become commonplace for those defending state-subsidised art to do so in terms of its economic benefit to a nation or community. In the UK, studies such as this one are cited, speaking of how much the creative industries contribute to GDP.

It’s a line of argument that is both compelling and frustrating. Compelling, because it appears to use a language that governments understand: that of economic value. It’s felt that an economic argument will have the greatest chance of success with the money-obsessed decision-makers in Whitehall – a measurable instrument of success that they can plug into their spreadsheets. But frustrating, because I think most of us would agree that the true value of art to a community or country doesn’t lie in its contribution to GDP.

Problems with the economic case

  1. What are the ‘creative industries’ anyway?

Let’s return to that study. I often see people on social media using the ‘creative industries contribute £13 million to the economy every hour’ line to justify state funding of artistic enterprise. But what actually are these ‘creative industries’, and do they perhaps merit a certain amount of scare-quoted suspicion in this context? Here’s an extract from the report:

The sector was supported by large contributions from tech services and the film and television industries, which contributed £45.4 billion and £20.8 billion to the economy respectively. Another boost was delivered by the advertising and marketing industries, which account for a quarter of the total growth of the creative industries since 2017.

There are a couple of things to draw out of this. ‘Tech services’ is still a little mysterious, but let’s give it the benefit of the doubt – it could refer to the highly successful video games that have come out of British-based companies in recent years. Next comes film and TV – mass media genres drawn to Britain by its lucrative tax breaks. Then there’s advertising, and marketing.

So, while the ‘creative industries’ are indeed generating healthy contributions to Treasury coffers, are these really the areas we mean when we cite these figures to defend investment in opera, dance, or live theatre? (If the success of film is how we’re going to justify investment in art, then it’s certainly a far cry from Keynes’ mantra upon founding what would become the Arts Council: ‘Death to Hollywood’!)

More recently, the Arts Council took a stab at defining more closely the actual cultural sectors involved, but still with a focus on the economic gain accruing from them.

2. What if the economic tide turns?

If the creative economy stops contributing as much to GDP as we say it does, how can further investment be justified? By tethering arguments for state subsidy to the economic performance of the sector, we make a rod for our own backs if it then stops making money. This could happen for any number of reasons, including changing tastes or modes of consumption.

To lean into the economic argument sets up a trap later down the road. If the numbers turn against us, and the creative industries stop being the economic boon we confidently assert that they currently are, perhaps even becoming a net drain on public resources, what argument can we fall back on?

3. Square pegs and round holes

London’s Southbank Centre was in the news recently for taking the decision to make two thirds of its staff redundant. Staff were told that when the centre – the largest arts centre in Europe, apparently – reopens, it will be run on a ‘start-up’ model. If you’re wondering what that means in practice, you’re not alone:

Over email, a spokesperson for the Southbank Centre told me: “When we talk about ‘start-up’ we mean a ‘mind-set approach’: being agile, adaptable to change, moving fast, risk-taking, innovating, constantly learning, changing the status quo, learning from failure, for example. We are not re-modelling operationally as a start-up.”

This is obviously nonsense, but it reflects the fact that organisations with an arts focus are increasingly being told to align themselves with the values and concerns of the trendy ‘startup’ model of business.

Should arts organisations really model for-profit businesses? If their worthiness for state support depends on it, thanks to that economic argument for their value, then it’s no surprise if they try and force themselves into a business model that appears to justify it.

4. Does investment in art directly lead to industry economic benefit?

It’s sometimes argued that there is a ‘trickle-up’ effect, by which investment in art filters in to the success of the wider creative industry. But the direct economic links between subsidised culture and creative industry are still not well understood. John Holden, who has written extensively on public policy relating to culture, articulated this back in 2007:

…the creative industries are still, in spite of all the attention that they have received, not fully conceived, explained, narrated or understood. At a fundamental conceptual level, the ‘creative industries’ idea veers between on the one hand being based on the creative capacities of individuals, and on the other being a categorisation of industry types.

It’s therefore too simplistic to say that investment in subsidising culture leads directly to some economic benefit via the creative industries.

5. The economic argument misses the point of art

Don’t worry – a definition of the point of art is somewhat outside the scope of this post. But it’s true that when compelled to articulate the actual value of art to communities, we tend to struggle. Most of us would agree that the ‘value’ of an artistic activity cannot be measured purely by its economic consequences. Social and cultural factors are at least as important.

The result of this is that a generation is at risk of not being able to make the case for investment based on anything except economics – which, as we’ve seen, is not a stable premise. Kate Levin underscores the risk in this article:

…you have to be able to describe your value. There can be a little bit of ‘we’re on the side of the angels’ in the creative sector, and the assumption that people understand what those benefits are.

So what’s the alternative?

If the economic argument doesn’t hold water, what other techniques can we use to make the case for public investment in art? Are there other arguments we can marshal, other valuations we can usefully deploy?

Arts Council England – the current successor to Keynes’ ‘Committee for Encouragement of Music and the Arts’ – has developed a 10-year plan, ‘Let’s Create‘, articulating its vision for publically-funded culture. It does a good job identifying some of the problems with access to culture across the country, and acknowledges a need ‘to improve the way we make the case for the social and economic value of investing public money in culture’.

However, there’s little in there that explains in simple terms why we as a people should fund the means of artistic creation. When one eventually reaches ACE’s ‘Investment Principles’, there’s a fair amount of buzzwordy jargon and not a great deal of solid matter. So what else is there?

  1. Soft power

If we still want to go down the route of talking to government in its own language, there’s always the idea of culture as ‘soft power’ – culture as an export, disseminated to project values and power across the world.

It’s interesting to see that Portland’s Soft Power Index has put the UK at number 1 or 2 in the world for the last five years, with ‘Culture’ tied with ‘Education’ as its chief asset. However, this is still largely the result of big-budget film, TV, or literature products such as Sherlock or Harry Potter – not the smaller, more fragile industries propped up by state support which are the focus of this post.

2. Enrichment

In a 2012 article for The Guardian, playwright David Edgar highlighted a case for the arts which centred on the idea of enrichment:

Five years ago, the Arts Council set out to produce a threefold definition of art’s purpose: to increase people’s capacity for life (helping them to “understand, interpret and adapt to the world around them”), to enrich their experience (bringing “colour, beauty, passion and intensity to lives”) and to provide a safe site in which they could build their skills, confidence and self-esteem. Other forms of endeavour do some of these things. Only art does all three.

I think this is compelling. Edgar goes on to lament how difficult these three effects are to quantify, but concludes that widening participation in artistic endeavour is likely to have the most long-lasting social benefit. But where does that leave high-level traditional opera, say, or other genres which are the domain of the highly-trained? Artistic value in these areas still seems to elude the quantifying measures required by state subsidy.

What does that leave us with?

Cultural ecology

John Holden, commissioned to report on this topic by AHRC in 2015, elects to reframe the subject as a ‘cultural ecology

…culture is an organism not a mechanism…careers, ideas, money, product and content move around between the funded, commercial, and homemade/amateur parts of the overall cultural world in such a way that those funding categories cannot be disentangled.

Finally we have a view which reflects the complexity of the contemporary creative landscape – culture as an interconnected series of pursuits, professions, and crafts, each umbilically linked to the others.

Seeing culture as an ecology allows the formation of ‘a comprehensible overview that does not privilege one type of value – financial value – over others that attach to culture’. A later passage is worth quoting in full, because it gets right to the heart of our discussion about the problems of relying on economic value alone:

It is…a category mistake to treat culture only as economy, because the cultural ecology operates in ways, and produces effects, that transcend monetary transactions. The mistake has real consequences. One is that concentrating on only monetary valuations of the system (which the Treasury’s Green Book methodology demands, in that it requires all types of value to be expressed in monetary terms) inhibits interactivity, and is likely to reduce the creation of both financial and cultural value. Another is that non-monetary flows in the ecology are neglected whereas in fact, as Crossick explains: ‘without an extraordinary level of free-sharing, value cannot be formed’. The cultural ecology cannot be understood without taking into account free labour and emotional rewards.

So, the focus on the measurable economic benefit of art not only misrepresents what art does, but does active damage to what it can do.

People do not have a solely ‘professional’ relationship to creation. They move through different phases, pourously – at different times and in different circumstances they can be amateurs, professionals, spectators, supporters. I started singing as an amateur; I spent a few years as a professional singer; but in my current phase I’m more likely to listen to and support others singing than participate directly myself.

Not all of our labour is directly able or apt to be monetised, and there is no blanket distinction in art between the amateur and professional worlds.

Holden is leading us towards viewing the cultural environment as a whole. This allows him to suggest targeted interventions which might take the form of funding, based on asking ourselves questions about what art needs:

It is helpful to think of these biological concepts as a set of life-cycle questions: what conditions bring a form of culture into being? How is that form of culture then sustained? What threatens its existence? How can it be nurtured to grow to its full potential? How can it help other life-forms to emerge? When should it be let go?


Perhaps we shouldn’t be shying away from the complexity of the organism that is ‘culture’. Finding the right answers to the questions above could result in funding going a lot further.

However, it’s certainly true that fulsome answers to complicated questions don’t fit in a tweet. And if government only talks the language of economy, can it be persuaded to learn that of ecology?

It might not be so far-fetched. After all, the national conversation about the natural environment has advanced greatly over a short time, with those in government generally agreed that the care of the natural world is a matter of pressing concern. The ecology model might be one to road to helping us present subsidised culture in the same light – and attract a similar level of concern.

Categories
Conducting

The need for praise

When you’re in training for something, it’s common to receive fairly regular doses of positive reinforcement. Messages of congratulation on a job well done, a pat on the back on a challenge overcome. Praise, when carefully administered by teachers or peers, is a powerful incentive – it’s a feedback loop that helps keep us learning.

However, I’ve noticed that once you reach a certain stage of proficiency, the formerly reliable dopamine injection of praise drops off a little. Once you’re viewed as essentially competent, people just assume you know you’re doing a good job, and that you no longer require positive reinforcement.

It’s a perfectly sensible reaction. One doesn’t want to risk patronising someone by offering praise for something they consider routine, or didn’t struggle to achieve. Likewise, an overabundance of unnecessary praise could lead to dependence or ego inflation – and goodness knows there’s enough of the latter in the creative world.

Nevertheless, there’s an adjustment that an emerging artist or creative person, or really anyone in any field, must make, as they move from disciple to practitioner. It can be very hard to shake the requirement for regular praise, a dependence which we form during our chrysalis phase.

‘Praise addiction’

I think this adjustment can result in particular difficulties for those who assume leadership positions. I’ll use conductors as a convenient example from my field, but I think it applies across the board.

Those who seek out leadership often have a very high tolerance for praise. Some may even be ‘praise addicts’, as described by Martha Beck in her article, Are you addicted to praise?

To summarise Beck: essentially, everyone can tolerate a certain amount of praise, before it makes them uncomfortable. Beck’s ‘praise addicts’, however, can quite happily receive near limitless amounts of the dopamine-inducing feedback – it gives them a rush, and it becomes a subconscious imperative to seek out the next ‘hit’.

It’s an easy trap to fall into, and I daresay all musicians can think of conductors who fit this profile. To an extent, it’s a manifestation of a societal problem: the world seems to teach us that we should be special, or stand out somehow. Accordingly, we have a tendency to view ourselves as special, and we expect people to respond accordingly. Leon Seltzer approaches the same problem from a different point of view:

In one way or another, virtually everybody dreams of standing out, being admired or acclaimed. To be viewed, and to view ourselves, as merely “average” or “adequate” really doesn’t do very much for our ego. This may be all the more so because we live in a meritorious, American-Idol-type society that refuses to celebrate or lavish praise on individuals unless they’re judged exceptional.

How do we avoid falling into the trap of requiring constant praise? How should we approach the transition from student to practitioner, when we can’t rely on the praise of our mentors to motivate us? It’s not like the need to learn goes away – we’re all always learning, or should be.

The courage to be normal

It’s natural that the regularity of positive feedback from others should decrease once we achieve proficiency. However, validation has to come from somewhere, and even the most experienced and competent require it. Here are a few ways I’m exploring to reconcile this disparity:

Absence of praise ≠ criticism
Silence doesn’t imply judgement. We should not expect to always be greeted like a master returning home to a dog. People are generally more like cats – perfectly content with you but not demonstrative about it…

Save really good feedback
I’ve taken to saving some of the nicest comments I’ve received from choir members, concert-goers or peers in a folder on my computer. That way, if I ever find myself in need of a bit of validation, I can return to them and be shocked anew at the nice things people have said.

Learn to reward yourself
Here’s Seltzer again:

…it’s crucial that when you’ve executed something well, demonstrated skill or talent, behaved generously or selflessly, you learn how to congratulate yourself.

Ultimately, we’re the only ones who can provide ourselves with confidence and motivation – we can’t always rely on external forces to supply it.

Have the ‘courage to be normal’
Earlier, we saw how the need for praise can arise out of the desire to be special or extraordinary. It’s a natural tendency, especially when we compare ourselves to others. But we know, really, that everyone is normal, whatever society might be trying to tell us.

‘The courage to be normal’ is one of the key insights of the book The Courage to Be Disliked by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga:

Why is it necessary to be special? Probably because one cannot accept one’s normal self.

The days are past when conductors, standing well above the orchestra, commanded unquestioned respect because of their towering genius – when their perceived ‘special’ or ‘extraordinary’ qualities permitted them to be dictatorial and excused unacceptable, even abusive behaviour.

Of course, there are still a handful of people around who haven’t got the memo. But, by and large, we now expect and encourage a spirit of collaboration, in which a degree of responsibility is shared out among the group or team, and no one is the ‘special’ one, not even the conductor (perhaps especially not the conductor – after all, they are the only one not making any noise).

It’s in cultivating this ‘courage to be normal’, then, that we stand a chance of avoiding the pitfalls of excessive praise-seeking, and instead become collaborative, imaginative musicians or artists, secure and confident in our own abilities – but not so confident that we can’t continue to learn.

Categories
Creativity

Creative portfolios: diversifying against risk

I recently made my first, tentative foray into the stock market. I know very little about stocks and shares, but what I have managed to glean so far is this: diversification helps inoculate against risk. Diversifying your holdings, by spreading them out across multiple kinds of investment or country or genre or ‘asset class’, means that if there’s a crash in one area, you’re still (hopefully) not going to lose out too much. I’ve been wondering if this is a useful analogy for professional work in the creative world.

[…] diversification is the investing equivalent of a free lunch. Research suggests that, not only is it the best way of managing risk but, over the long-term, also leads to higher returns. 

Lars Kroijer

In the past six months, we’ve experienced the equivalent of the bottom dropping out of the creative market. Anything creative that was generally done in front of other people became mostly impossible, overnight.

Everyone going into a creative profession, especially as a freelancer, knows the risks. Precarity. Uncertainty. Vulnerability to market forces completely beyond our control. But just as in investment, in return for accepting the higher risk, we receive various rewards: maybe it’s a degree of control over our lifestyle, or flexibility with working hours.

We might be tempted to think Covid-19 is an isolated occurrence, but there have been other market-altering calamities, and there will be more to come. All manner of events can affect our ability to do what we do, be it external, such as a market crash, or personal, such as a change in circumstances, or an unexpected illness.

Is there a way of inoculating ourselves against these risks? And how feasible is it for a creative person to ‘diversify’?

Risk tolerance

In investing, you decide how much to put into the riskiest assets – equities, for example – vs the safer options – bonds, cash – by determining your individual risk tolerance. Younger people are advised to take more risks; the market generally evens out over time, meaning over a longer time-frame, you’re less likely to lose out. Those coming closer to when they might need the money are advised to shift the balance to less risky assets.

So, as someone just starting out, you might justifiably put all your eggs in one creative basket, and commit full-time to your passion. In the event of a Calamitous Event(TM), your liabilities are few, and you can dust yourself down and try again, or try something else.

But not everyone has the same tolerance for this level of risk. Those with more liabilities, or dependants, might want to swim more cautiously in these waters, to have a backup plan, or even something else running along the side.

Transferable skills and ‘side hustles’

Let’s assume for now that we want to do the latter. We’ll commit to our chosen focus, but we’ll try and spare 5% or so of our energy to keep something else on the back burner. What that something else is depends on a number of things.

The investment analogy suggests that to be diversified against risk, our supplementary activity needs to be in a different enough field that it would be unaffected by anything that might threaten our core activity. Here’s an obvious example: if our core focus requires live performance and travel, then the ideal bulwark against this year’s particular obstacle is a job that can be done at home.

If our subsidiary focus can be one that informs and enriches the main discipline, so much the better. The classic supplementary job in the world of musical performance is teaching or tutoring – leveraging existing knowledge and pre-gained experience to generate a more securely predictable income. And teaching can be just as valuable for the teacher as the pupil – something I’ve certainly found as I’ve begun to teach conducting. For me, teaching and writing have been sidelines that enhance and help me reflect on what I think of as my main discipline – and inevitably the balance will keep shifting.

We want something that will enrich and be enriched by our main specialism, but is sufficiently separate from it to avoid the same risks. Of course, not everyone will have a sub-specialism that meets these criteria, but there are other ways – perhaps there’s a related hobby that can be monetised.

I’m wary of what’s become known as hustle culture – the idea that we should always be trying to monetise our activities, spending all our time thinking of new ways to make money. I can’t imagine it’s possible to be a reflective, creative person without a bit of space in our lives, and I’m not suggesting that we need to adopt the ‘hustle’ mindset to achieve diversification. Instead, I want to safeguard that creative space by attempting to mitigate the risks associated with it.

The world as it should be vs the world as it is

This position might seem a little cynical. Shouldn’t artists be free to pursue their art to the exclusion of all else? The answer, in an ideal world, is yes, absolutely. Whether the solution ends up being a Universal Basic Income or something else, a world in which we can all exercise complete freedom of creative choice, unconstrained by market forces, or what will make money – that’s surely the goal.

However, we don’t live in this perfect world. The real world has yet to catch up to this ideal. We are, unless we are very lucky, tethered to the fortunes of the financial systems in which we live, as well as subject to the vagueries of taste or politics. For me, that awareness breeds a certain caution, and it’s why I’m going to try to keep myself, at least a little bit, diversified.


Now, you might say: Pavarotti never ‘diversified’! Da Vinci didn’t have a ‘side hustle’! Artistic geniuses always devote themselves 100% to their passions, ignoring the constraints of the ‘market’ or the ‘real world’!

Even if that were true, and even if I got away with that straw man – and I’m pretty sure it isn’t and I didn’t – most of the ‘genius artists’ we might include in this category were not only talented and hard-working, but lucky – and we might not be. So if we’re OK with embracing a bit more risk to become a bit more successful, all good. But if our risk tolerance means balancing the risk with something else, there’s no shame in that.

Categories
Choirs

Diversifying repertoire: some practical considerations

In 2018, I set myself the challenge of programming a week of daily services, for my choir at Christ Church Cathedral, which would feature only music by women. The hope was that we’d find some music to introduce into our core repertoire. In this post I write about why I thought that was worth doing, how I went about it, and what I learned from it.

I think I knew, in abstract terms, that bringing in compositional voices from different backgrounds to musical genres was a Good Thing – that art being representative enriches the art form, and therefore culture more widely. But it wasn’t until a friend pointed it out that I realised I, as a director of several musical groups, was probably in a position to put this into practice myself.

I’m not going to spend long on the arguments for diversifying repertoire; others have done so much more articulately than I could. Instead, for the purposes of this article, we’ll assume that it’s probably a good idea, and go through how I tried, in a somewhat limited way, to implement it.

Suffice it to say that, as I understand it, it’s a kind of positive discrimination. We give an artificial bump to a particular demographic to correct a historical imbalance, with the aim that future generations have a level playing field. For now, we assemble the musical equivalent of ‘binders full of women’ so that in the future, it won’t matter.

I decided that the way to jump-start this process in my own creative world was to see if it was possible to mount an entire week of choral services consisting of music by women. At Christ Church Cathedral, I’m responsible for the music in those weeks of the year when the choir I direct, the Cathedral Singers, is ‘in residence’.

Several factors complicated this process, and I think they reflect a number of reasons why musical organisations sometimes find it difficult to broaden their repertoire, even when the will is there.

Challenges

In the British cathedral tradition, we generally have about 45 minutes or so to rehearse an evening’s music before performing it in the context of a service. This particular choir faces the additional restriction that it has a flexible membership – it can be an entirely different group of singers from one evening to the next. It pretty much means that anything we perform has to be either already well-known, or rehearsable in a very short amount of time.

Instantly, that knocks out a certain quantity of contemporary music. It means we lean heavily into the traditional ‘canon’ of Anglican choral music, which clusters around the 19th century and Tudor periods, and accordingly consists with few exceptions of music by white men. We’ve come to rely on the institutional knowledge of those who’ve been singing in parish, cathedral, and college choirs since they were children.

I’ve always enjoyed the challenge of reconciling these limitations with the need of any group to expand its repertoire and skills. But, as you can see from the following box diagram, it forces a number of restrictions on would-be innovators:

And there’s a further box, really, which is ‘good quality’. If the music fits in all the other boxes, but isn’t actually any good, then it’s not doing it’s job in the liturgy (not to mention the singers won’t want to sing it).

Resources

Finding music within this small box means casting a wide net. There are web resources, curated like Cecilia’s List (now a little out of date), open to all like CPDL or IMSLP, or publisher pages for more established composers, like OUP, Boosey & Hawkes, and Edition Peters.

Immediately frustrating was the lack of score samples across many of these. Publishers are improving, but it’s far from consistent across the board. It’s hard to know if a piece is right if you can’t see the score. Additionally, the ‘rehearsable in a short amount of time’ constraint inevitably led me to simpler music, much of which wasn’t very good – it’s much more difficult to write simple music well, and it is much more the preserve of amateur composers writing for amateur ensembles.

Conclusions

In the end, our success rate was about 89% – all the music we sang was by women, except for the hymns and the mass setting, used twice that week. Music included Amy Beach, Margaret Rizza, Sarah MacDonald, Debbie Rose, Stephanie Martin, Sarah Rimkus, and Eleanor Daley, almost all of it new to the choir.

We bit off slightly more than we could chew on a couple of occasions, but the singers had prepared well. Several of the pieces have, as I’d hoped, found a place in our regular repertoire.

Here are my main takeaways from the project:

  • Non-standard repertoire doesn’t come to you; you have to seek it out, and this takes a lot longer than you would think

Conductors are used to piles of unsolicited scores arriving in the post, or in their inbox, but in my experience it’s been rare for these to be from women. Instead, it means a lot of trawling on the internet

  • Constraint breeds creativity

I knew I wanted to use Beach’s lovely Nunc dimittis, but it doesn’t have a doxology, or a Magnificat partner – standard requirements for evensong repertoire. We paired it with a plainchant Magnificat, and I wrote a Gloria for the Beach using the music from the opening

  • Composers, especially early in their careers, need to put score samples online

Finding appropriate repertoire took so long that I ended up instantly dismissing composers whose scores I couldn’t see. Recordings aren’t a good substitute

  • If I made this work(ish), within the limitations outlined above, then those programming with fewer constraints can too

I don’t always, or indeed often, manage the amount of inclusion that I should, and I’m very aware that much of my programming falls short in this regard. But the fact that I did it once reminds me that it is possible.

What I hope to do now is help enlarge the size of that small box, in the little ways that I can, be it by competitions, commissions, or simply recommendations. Hopefully, we’ll end up with a situation of unconstrained choice, which can only be good for us.

Categories
Choirs Leadership

Musical leadership without music

The role of conductor changed abruptly in mid-March of this year. For me, it’s thrown the nature of musical leadership into the spotlight: how can those of us with responsibility for musical direction maintain this responsibility when a direct musical relationship isn’t possible?

The business world tells us that the companies that do well are those that are light on their feet. They adapt; they are, in teeth-grinding but somewhat useful management-speak, agile, alert to market conditions and ready to respond.

Musical groups are not businesses, or at least they don’t like to think of themselves that way. But the substantially ‘market-altering’ conditions which 2020 has visited on the performing arts have forced change on a genre which is normally remarkably resistant to it: western classical music. Likewise the leader or conductor of the group has had to make changes, and in this post I’m reflecting on mine, thinking out loud about musical leadership in a time of crisis.

A change in goals

Until earlier this year, the goal of the groups I direct was largely to work towards musical performances, and build up our common musicianship along the way. Goals are important for the motivation of any organisation, and musical groups are no different – indeed, many now have ‘mission statements’, a concept imported from the business world.

Our goals have adapted and evolved during the various stages of lockdown, roughly along the following lines:

  1. Keep our community intact

The immediate priority for me was making sure that, however long this all lasted, there would still be a strong sense of community within the group. The worst thing would be if, after all this, there remained only the husk of an ensemble to come back to. Zoom meet-ups, virtual pub quizzes, seminars and workshops formed a large part of this initial phase.

During this time, we became familiar with and adjusted to the requirements of online meetings, a necessary relearning of the rules of interaction.

  1. Maintain our musicianship

After these initial experiences with online get-togethers, my focus turned towards how to preserve any gains we’ve made in our musicianship, technique, or other skills, so that when we return, we can hit the ground running, without having lost too much momentum. This is where online music sessions came in.

I’ve generally resisted the term ‘virtual rehearsal’ when talking about these – it’s not really the same thing as a rehearsal, at least in the OED’s sense of ‘practice performance…in preparation for later public performance’. The most cynical way to think about it would be a sort of ‘choral karaoke’ – but I think even this has value.

The online sessions had a similar structure to our in-person rehearsals, but with a shift in focus: away from an eventual performance, and towards preservation of key skills. The warm-up was slightly longer, focusing on maintaining healthy technique even in a confined space or if sitting. The preparation of a piece was necessarily more basic, with no possibility of rehearsing anything involving ensemble. Instead we looked at possible interpretations, attention to details in the score, poetry and text. Performance was done along to a guide recording, either pre-existing or recorded by me for this purpose.

The performance element of the rehearsal had an almost completely different function – not so much cementing an interpretation honed or notes learned, as listening and reacting to an unfamiliar recording. Sometimes this led to critical listening of a performance or recording.

3. Produce something

Being a performing ensemble ultimately means generating a performance of some kind. Most of us are still in the process of working out what this looks like within the constraints currently imposed on us. I’ve written about one answer here. And with my cathedral choir, we’ve been recording items for use in broadcast services along the lines described here.

The autumn will provide the real test of ingenuity, if current restrictions continue. I’ve got some ideas, and I’m excited to see what others will come up with.

Lest this sound self-congratulatory, I think I was slow to react in the early stages, when we didn’t really have a notion of how long this might last. I was initially sceptical of taking everything online, and I might have been tempted to batten down the hatches and wait for it all to blow over. It was seeing others boldly pushing out of their comfort zone that inspired me to do the same.

Setting the tone

Perhaps more strongly than the move to redefine goals, the thing that came home to me was how much people look to leaders/conductors for moral and emotional leadership. No big surprise, you might think; but it reminded me of my responsibility.

When the message comes down from the top that ‘everything will be OK’, or ‘we’ll get through this and emerge stronger’, it permeates through the ensemble. If it’s true that what counts is ‘not what happens to us, but the way that we react to it’, then, in organisational terms, leaders set the tone and pattern of that reaction.

In those weeks where I was able to successfully project this optimism and reassurance – even if I wasn’t completely convinced myself – we ended our sessions with a sense of positivity and potential.

I’ve been trying to stay on the right side of a fine line: between the energetic, tigger-ish buoyancy that completely ignores what’s going on; and the quieter, more stable outlook which acknowledges the difficulty while believing in the strength of everyone involved to overcome it. There’s a place for both approaches. The first style might beget the response ‘I completely forgot about all the bad things for a couple of hours’, while the other might lead to ‘I didn’t forget about the bad things; but I remembered that we can overcome them’.


In Oxford, I used to occasionally act as a guinea-pig for MBA students and others at the University’s Said Business School. Unsuspecting lawyers, engineers, middle managers, or students would be thrust in front of a group of professional singers and told to conduct. They had no prior training, and, with few exceptions, no idea what they were doing.

Some would get up immediately, wave their hands around enthusiastically, and be rather surprised when nothing happened. But the most successful at this exercise were not the ones who tried to bulldoze their way through on pure confidence. Instead, they got up, and, with a mixture of openness, positivity, and humility, engendered a genuine connection, making us want them to succeed even when their technique was deficient.

I often miss the mark; but I think this is what I’m going for.

The last few months have frequently held up a mirror – literally, in the case of online video conferencing, or self-videography – in which we can see our attempts at leadership played back to us. I’ve found it a salient reminder of the need to try and maintain that openness, positivity, and humility.